Reviewed by Miriam F. d'Amato
The first act of Kenneth Lonergan's "The Waverly Gallery" is so superbly acted, so perfectly staged and directed by producing artistic director Rick Lombardo, that we try to ignore the nagging question, "Where can we go from here?" and the dragging feeling that we know the answer. Waverly Gallery is the story of the growing dementia of Gladys Green, played by Joan Kendall with amazing deftness and control, and the effects of her deterioration on her family: her daughter, Ellen Fine, played by Bobbie Steinbach; Ellen's son, hence Gladys's grandson, Daniel Reed, played by Joe Smith; Ellen's second husband, Howard Fine, played by Ken Baltin; and Don Bowman, played by Doug Lockwood, an artist from Lynn Massachusetts whose work Gladys decides to exhibit in her gallery, the Waverly.
These actors are marvelous. The most difficult part for an actor to play is a "normal" person, which is what these people are. Steinbach, Smith, and Baltin are real and believable, and their ensemble work, especially the scenes that show the family at dinner, is faultless. Lockwood, the outsider who becomes part of this family's lives, is bewildered and sensitive, unable to do much but wanting to, yet still concentrating on his own career and his "opening" at the gallery (which no one attends). Kendall, of course, is the center of it all, but, although her family focuses on her, the combined talents of this cast keep the audience's focus on everyone on stage. Their reactions are as telling as her provocations. Gladys's personality, emphasized by her condition, leads her to talk and talk and talk-but Kendall never loses control. She delivers her lines with incredible variety, even when they become more and more repetitive, the signal of her dementia.
Yes, everyone's work is excellent, something we have come to expect from the New Rep. Daniel Meeker's lighting and Jessica Rae Chartoff's staging of the production give it depth and variety, particularly notable since both the theatre and the stage are small. Joanne M. Haas's costumes deserve special mention. They catch and reflect the personalities, especially of Gladys and Ellen.
But the question persists, growing more nagging toward the end of the first act: "Where can we go from here?" Unfortunately, the only path the playwright takes us along is the inevitable declining course. Gladys, feisty, attractive, charming, intelligent, follows the clinical stages of dementia. Our last sight of her is when (finally!) her daughter and son-in-law take her, reduced to screaming panic, out of her apartment, where she has been living alone (!), to stay with them. We are spared the sight of her death, but her grandson reports it vividly, adding, "It's not true that if you try hard enough, you'll prevail." Love, he says, makes it worthwhile. Just before the final blackout, the audience is shown a large photo of young Gladys holding her infant daughter, Ellen. Love, but long gone. The picture underscores Dan's statement that no matter how hard you try, you can't prevail. Not an illuminating insight.
Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be true for any of these people. We see much of Gladys's deterioration onstage, and that's just about all we see. None of the people in Gladys's life-not her family, not the artist she sponsored-change, learn, or grow, and nothing is revealed except what we knew would happen from the beginning. None of the hints and foreshadowings presented in the first act are developed in the second. For example, Gladys repeatedly asks both her daughter and her grandson, "Can you cook?" and follows it up with, "I never learned to cook." We know she gave fabulous parties when she stayed on Fire Island with her late husband, and we know that Ellen cooks doggedly (meat loaf and mashed potatoes make up one menu). So? Was this an issue between them before? We never know. The gallery is threatened by the owner of the hotel next door, who intends to turn it into a breakfast cafe, but although the threat is discussed, no one does anything and nothing happens-no cafe, no confrontation. Does Daniel, a presentable and intelligent young man, like his job? Does he have girlfriends, or is the vaguely unsuccessful relationship referred to the only one he's ever known? Did Howard ever have a friendly relationship with his mother-in-law, or does the fact that she preferred Ellen's first husband matter to him and explain his detachment? Why was the first husband introduced in Gladys's conversation at the beginning and near the end, when no one else ever discusses him? And why is Don in this play? He is not a device for exposition nor is he a part of the public who sees Gladys as she loses more and more of herself. He serves no dramatic function at all, except perhaps to hint that the gallery was never successful in the first place (or was it?) and to make us wonder-in passing-how it existed all these years.
What was the point of this play? To follow this woman through these stages? I can predict the protest: "But this is true. This is the way it happens/happened." Maybe. But just the fact that it's true doesn't make it dramatic. Dementia and Alzheimer's have been the subjects of recent television documentaries and dramas, the way alcoholism used to be. Some of us have even experienced their effects on family members first hand, and predicting the stages was easy. We need more than the case study that shapes the second act. A case study prompts the audience to ask the obvious questions. The setting is New York, 1989-1991, surely a city that offers some type of day program for an elderly woman who has nowhere to go. Ellen has hired people to give her mother the necessary insulin shots, but not to take her out for an afternoon walk. Everyone seems to have plenty of money, so why must the grandson, who lives in the same apartment building as his grandmother, take on the burden of her constant calling and visiting at all hours of the night as her condition worsens? Why didn't he call his mother sooner, before he reached his breaking point? A family member's dementia is a strain on her family-but in this play, no relationships are affected. In the few scenes where Gladys is offstage, the conversations between mother and son are predictable and trite, even Ellen's statement that she wishes her mother would die. The son doesn't berate his mother, the husband and wife apparently live their lives as before, and Don keeps dreaming the same dreams. Indeed, when Don gives up, the reason has nothing to do with Gladys.
Lonergan has a wonderful ear for dialogue and a knack for making everyday speech interesting and funny and often significant, a talent indispensable to a playwright. But we never know whom this play is about-Gladys, Ellen, Dan, Howard, or Don. What Lonergan needs is to read his play again, without benefit of these actors, and figure out the answer. "The Waverly Gallery" was too shallow, too clinical, and too long. Too bad.